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Pulp Fiction: The Truth about Dental Disease

Author: 
Sarah Pilbeam
probing a dental pocket

Say you come in for your bi-annual dental examination, and we pick up dental disease.
The invariable response is couldn’t we just brush?  Should I give more bones? And does my pet really need a dental? 
In short, no, no and yes.

All the best home care in the world (see Cliff Notes: The Whole Tooth) can’t cure dental disease. To understand why, it’s really important to understand how bacteria undermine teeth, and the difference between plaque and dental disease.

Plaque

Plaque is a thin, slimy film of bacteria that coats teeth, happily living on scraps that slosh around the mouth.  Brushing, friction, chewing and diet can wipe them away, and slow the damage they do by controlling the bacterial numbers.

Dental disease is destruction the plaque bacteria cause to the mouth.  They eat away at the base of teeth, making them loose, killing the living pulp and making them painful centres of infection in your dog or cat’s mouth.  They cause reddening, soreness, bleeding and inflammation of the gums, both by themselves and with their by-products. 

Calculus

When the minerals in the saliva mingle with the plaque bacteria, they form solid, rock-like deposits on the teeth, called calculus. The teeth become rough, and without their smooth veneer, are even more hospitable to bacteria, which would be sloughed of a healthy, glossy enamel.

Once bacteria get under the gum line and go to town on the tooth root, they are lost to home dental care forever.  A toothbrush, even with the best, and most assiduous technique, is only going to reach a maximum of 3-5mm under the gum.  The tooth root extends centimeters.

Brushing will remove plaque but it can't remove Calculus.

What happens during a dental?

A dental, or ‘veterinary periodontal therapy’, if you want to get technical (and pretentious) about it is the only way to reverse dental disease.

Crystalised calculus can only be removed with an ultrasonic scaler, just like your own dentist would use.  As long as it remains in the mouth, it will kick tooth decay into hyperdrive.

During a dental we:

  • probe the teeth for hidden disease
  • scale away the calculus
  • polish up the viable ones to make them more plaque resistant
  • and carefully loosen and remove teeth that cannot be salvaged, and had been causing a constant pain and infection.

Once a tooth is dead, bacteria has killed the pulp, or periodontal disease has eaten away the bony socket to make it lose and it becomes painful. 

All the brushing in the world is not going to cure a toothache.

A dead tooth is a constant source of pain, and it’s no more acceptable to ignore than a limp, a sore eye or a torturous skin condition.  It’s my job to relieve pain, whether it’s immediately obvious or not, and I think that’s something every owner wants for the special fluffy person in their life, too.